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What is the Correct Role of an Emergency Manager?

This is Part One of a two part series. To read Part Two, see Related Articles after this piece and click on the link.

Adam Sutkus, Phyllis Cauley and Nicole Ugarte

So, what exactly should an emergency manager do? This was the question raised by the California Emergency Services Association (CESA) leadership in late 2010, in response to unprecedented changes in the field since 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession.

Facing increased expectations and fewer resources, the emergency management profession is forced to evolve to meet new, dynamic challenges. An informal but intense dialogue regarding the role of the emergency manager has been underway both in California and nationally. Since 2001, funding, expectations and attention to the field of emergency management and homeland security have increased dramatically, fundamentally altering the role of the local emergency manager. Until now there has not been a concerted effort to ‘stop the presses’ and allow emergency managers themselves the chance to reflect and redefine their field. In light of this development opportunity, the CESA, under the leadership of President Marsha Hovey, initiated a visioning and strategic planning process throughout 2010 to identify challenges and discuss solutions for the profession to continue to thrive.

To accomplish this effort, CESA requested the assistance of the Center for Collaborative Policy, California State University Sacramento (CCP) to serve as a neutral party and facilitator in this important dialogue. The mission of CCP is to build the capacity of public agencies, stakeholder groups, and the public to use collaborative strategies to improve policy outcomes. CCP has a track record of achieving successful program development and policy resolution using these techniques for large, multi-party efforts. Since 2005, CCP has managed a portfolio of key public policy projects for the emergency management and homeland security field. CCP retained its traditional role of a third-party neutral in this visioning and strategic planning effort for CESA.

The visioning effort for the CESA membership involved receiving feedback in a variety of ways. Prior to the 2010 CESA Annual Conference, participants provided initial data via an online survey to pinpoint trends and serve as a starting point for group discussions during the conference, where the in-person dialogue would take place.

In addition to the pre-conference survey, three separate group discussions convened during the conference itself, with each session building initially on the survey data, and then sequentially on the earlier dialogues held during the conference. Based on the survey responses, the discussions were framed around the following key questions:

  • The role of emergency managers and scope of their duties is not understood by key partners. How can this be reversed?
  • Currently, California does not have accepted norms or standards for the Emergency Management profession. Should this change, and by what method?
  • The best organizational location for an emergency manager has been under debate. What are the key attributes and characteristics of the emergency management position that allow one to do their job effectively, and why?
  • Management, strategy, policy, and global coordination are a necessary role for emergency managers; at the same time, tactical, operational actions need to take place as well. How can emergency managers best carry out these seemingly juxtaposed roles?

The first conference session was designed to share experiences and overall vision for the emergency management field. During the second session, participants built on themes identified in the previous session and sought to define the emergency management position and current trends and expectations. In the final session, participants revisited the overarching issues and ideas identified throughout the conference, and discussed the next steps to incorporate potential solutions into CESA’s work effort for the upcoming year.

The dialogue and involvement among the CESA members through the survey and conference sessions was active, creative and robust. This exercise to understand the pressures on professionals in the field and recognize emerging trends definitely ‘hit a nerve’ and allowed for critical information to come forward that will influence discussions about the field for years to come. Several key findings emerged through the intensive dialogue, along with potential actions to address the issues:

Finding #1: Emergency managers’ role and scope of duties need to be clarified and understood.

  • Emergency managers have tactical and policy level roles; both are key.
  • Core roles include, but are not limited to, building a prepared organization with sufficient capacity and knowledgeable staff; having all planning documents up-to-date and coordinated with partners; developing and implementing a training and exercise plan that encompasses staff, partners, and elected officials; having strong relationships with internal and external partners to understand each other’s roles and capabilities and to foster collaboration; establishing a fully functional emergency operations center (people, systems); and engaging with the community.
  • Because emergency managers are many times carrying out the roles of grant manager and administrative assistant, as well as duties that are seen as belonging to other agencies with emergency management duties, they are not able to focus on critical functions. Examples of those critical functions include outreach and collaboration with partners; getting buy-in on the need for training and exercises; full engaging with their community; providing input on policy issues; and addressing areas of preparedness that sometimes languish (e.g., recovery planning; mentoring new emergency managers.)
  • Terminology is important. The term emergency “coordinator” or “planner” can take away from an accurate understanding of the functional role and scope of duties. Service delivery and the emergency manager’s role in it should be a focal point.
  • One view expressed is that the local emergency manager is the chief advisors to the jurisdiction’s chief executive with respect to organizing the jurisdiction’s resources and cooperators to prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of major emergencies and disasters. Each jurisdiction will make their own decisions, but they need a clear idea of what the expectations are.
  • There is not a true national view on the role and scope of duties for the emergency management role.

The potential actions to address this challenge centered on redefining the emergency manager’s role in California (and nationally), through CESA leadership. Specifically, taking the information from this exercise and creating a standardized vision for the emergency management field and expectations for the role; defining and recommending the role of the emergency management discipline in relation to the executive function; focusing on an orientation template for new officials relative to their role and the emergency managers’ role; and continuing the dialogue to transparently focus on the changing role of the emergency manager to influence statewide and national debate.

ASPA member Adam Sutkus is a managing senior mediator at the Center for Collaborative Policy at Sacramento State University, where he manages the project portfolio on Emergency Management and Homeland Security. Email: [email protected]

Phyllis Cauley is a subject matter expert in emergency management with CCP, following a long career in California Emergency Services.

Nicole Ugarte is an assistant facilitator at CCP and has worked on numerous emergency management policy projects, as well as land use, water issues and organizational development.

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